Disclaimer: These characters are not mine and I make no profit from them.
Author's Note: Thanks, Owl and Cheri, for taking time out from tree trimming and other stuff to beta this.
By L. M. Lewis
Frank had said he'd stop by Monday evening on the way home and he'd fully intended to. After all, the statement needed signing and the D.A. was waiting.
But things had happened.
It was, by no means, any sense of reluctance on his part. That would be silly. No reason for reluctance. He definitely remembered having it back in the fifth grade. He'd called his mom up; she'd confirmed his recollection. He'd checked Claudia's trusty copy of 'A Family Home Medical Guide'. You could only catch it once.
Hell, they even had a vaccination for it nowadays, though he could understand how McCormick, all things considered, might've somehow slipped through the cracks on that one. And, sad to say, catching it now appeared to be a line-of-duty issue—though, as Milt had put it, 'That'll teach ya to go smooching around with a mobster's girlfriend when you're doing an undercover job.'
And the woman in question, now in custody and definitely in isolation, had come down with it a week and a half ago. She, of course, did not have to worry about all the consequences that Mark would.
No reluctance at all, Harper assured himself as he drove up the driveway on Tuesday evening. Of course he might ask Milt to give the papers to Mark. And the kid might want to take some time and read them over, make sure everything was right. They could be mailed back. No big rush on that. The D.A. could wait.
He gathered himself and the file folder and strode up to the porch of the main house, shoulders straight and an unpretended look of concern on his face. It didn't even take a knock before the door opened. Milt must've been in the den and had heard the car approach.
"How's the patient?" Frank asked.
"Cranky." The judge jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "He's in here."
Frank had figured as much. Mark might've wanted to slink off to the gatehouse and do his suffering in decent privacy, but Milt had probably insisted that that meant too much fetching and carrying.
"The den," Hardcastle said, then he dropped his voice to something just above a whisper and added, "You might not want to joke around about it."
Frank shook his head and wiped off his attempt at a cheery smile. "No, um, complications so far?"
Hardcastle shook his head. "Charlie Friedman said it only happens about a third of the time, and then usually only to one side."
Frank thought about that a moment and decided those were odds that most guys would rather not take. And besides, Mark was not one for astonishing good fortune. He stepped in, not reluctant but not exactly eager. He sniffed once. The place was redolent of chicken.
"You eaten yet?" Milt asked "Got a nice pot of soup in the kitchen."
"Nah," Harper shook his head hastily, "just wanted to drop these off . . . and say 'hi'," he added, just a fraction too late to sound completely casual. "I mean, if he's up to it." He'd aimed for noble but thought it had fallen a little short.
"Oh, sure, come on in," Milt encouraged him. "We haven't had a lot of company."
The T.V. was on in the den, but the volume was turned down to nearly inaudible. The coffee table had been pulled over within easy reach of the sofa. On it were the usual sickroom requirements: glass and straw, pill bottle, ice pack, and—the ultimate concession to McCormick's weakened condition—the remote.
The man himself was curled up on his side, the blanket pulled to his chin, his eyes closed, and a thermometer hanging a bit slack from his mouth.
"I don't want to wake him," Frank insisted from the other side of the room.
"Don't worry," the judge stepped over and gave the younger man a light thwack on the shoulder. "He's been sleeping all day. It's the fever."
He captured the thermometer just as it started to fall to the floor. "Hey," he jostled gently, "you're supposed to keep it under your tongue." He held it up rotating it slightly. "Never mind, high enough," he added, half to himself, shaking it down and reinstalling it in a cup on the table. "Okay, gotta wake up here, kiddo, drink something, take some aspirin."
The man on the sofa started to turn over, the blanket fell away slightly from his face. Frank winced. It was amazing how something could look both painful and ridiculous at the same time.
The judge caught his expression and said, in a quiet aside, "And he's not gonna like it if you use the word 'chipmunk'."
"Gotcha," Frank nodded once.
Mark muttered—only half-awake—then grimaced, then winced from the apparent pain that the grimacing had brought on. He finally opened his eyes and blinked, still looking a little unfocused. Milt was holding out two pills and the glass with the straw in it.
The younger man crawled up into a position closer to sitting, pulling the blanket with him. He took the glass, and made some limited facial expression in the direction of the pills. It might have been a look of disapproval, as much as chipmunks were capable of conveying such opinions.
"Take 'em," Hardcastle said sternly. You're back up to 102."
McCormick reached for the tablets reluctantly and put them in his mouth one at a time, with a swallow after each. He finally looked up.
"Hey," he said, a little muffled, "Frank."
"How ya doing?" Harper kept it general; a direct inquiry about the guy's cojones would probably not be appreciated.
But McCormick's mind was apparently also on the same subject. He gave it a brief moment's thought and then said, quiet and a little tense, "Still hangin'."
"I made some soup," Hardcastle interjected. "You're gonna eat some." He headed off to the kitchen.
Frank stood for a moment longer, then, feeling a little awkward at the amount of now-unoccupied space between them, sidled over to one of the wingback chairs and sat down.
"Got something for you to sign."
He set the folder down on the table, fished a pen out of his pocket, placed that on top, and slid the whole thing across. Mark reached out from under the blanket for them, then fumbled the folder open and scanned the contents.
"Oh . . ." He clicked the pen and signed the last page, initialing the rest for thoroughness. He started to hand both back.
"Keep the pen," Frank said flatly, then forced a small, apologetic grin.
Mark looked at it for a moment, then hooked it on the collar edge of his sweatshirt, attempting a wry expression of his own.
"Can't come up with any extra charges for this, huh?" He gestured ruefully to his face.
"Sorry, Mark . . . and I really am, about the whole thing. Though I gotta say, you getting this was back on about page eight of the things I was worrying about when you went undercover on this job."
"There were seven other pages?" Mark asked in disbelief.
"Maybe six," Frank said dryly. "And getting struck by lightning was way ahead of the mumps."
"I think I might've preferred that," McCormick admitted. "More dignified, for one."
The judge was back. He had a tray and three bowls, with a package of saltines on the side.
"Figured we might as well eat in here."
He set the tray down and passed Mark his, then handed one over to Frank who took it without further protest.
"Crackers?" Hardcastle said, dumping some out onto a plate.
"They hurt," McCormick grumbled, staring down into his soup without a whole lot of enthusiasm.
"You put 'em in the soup and let 'em soften up."
"Eat it anyway. You gotta eat something."
Mark sighed and took a spoonful, looking pained.
"See? That wasn't so bad. Jeez, you'd think you'd invented being sick or something. I had it when I was a just a kid. 'Bout eleven, I think."
"Yeah," Mark said mumpishly. "Eleven. None of the . . ." he dropped his gaze and his voice a notch, "other stuff to worry about."
"Charlie says you get through tomorrow and you're practically out of the woods on that. You know, you oughta think of this as kind of a vacation: sitting on your duff for a week, John Wayne movies, and all the ice cream you can eat, right?"
"'Vacation', huh?" Mark muttered. "Trust me, Judge, you don't ever want to open a travel agency." He took another slurp of soup.
Frank grabbed a handful of crackers and crumbled them into his own bowl, then picked up a spoon. After a moment's thought he said, "I was ten, I think. My brother gave it to me. At least he was the one who had it first. I missed the Little League playoffs. I was pretty steamed."
"Well, I had it over a Thanksgiving holiday," Hardcastle admitted. "Couldn't eat any turkey. Gerald made a lot of jokes. Then he tried to sell tickets to kids to come and see me while I was asleep. Our mom put an end to that pretty quick." The judge smiled. "Hah. He had his turn about two weeks later."
"And I'm sure you were a saint when he came down with it," Frank said with a nod.
"Well, I was kinda hoping he'd hold off till Christmas, but he got it over with in-between." He shook his head. "There is no justice. And he got fussed over just as much as I had, even though he was a holy terror and a pain in the butt the rest of the time.
"But, anyway," Hardcastle gestured with his spoon, "you take stuff for the fever, and you climb under the covers, and you drink a lot of ginger ale, and people fuss over you some. It's not so bad."
Frank looked down at his bowl with a brief nod of agreement. Then he lifted his head and caught a glimpse of Mark's expression. Despite the distortion, there was still visible astonishment, as though he'd just come across an idea he'd never heard of before. The younger man said nothing, though, just retackled his soup with slightly more enthusiasm.
Harper smiled, spooning up the last of his own. He put his bowl down and edged forward in his seat, picking up the file.
"Hate to eat and run, but I should be shoving off. Don't get up. I'll find the door myself." He grinned and tucked the file under his arm. He was on his feet, with the other two men's good-byes behind him as he headed for the hallway.
As he put his hand on the knob to let himself out, he heard Milt's voice, stern and a little gruff. "You should finish it. You can't be taking that aspirin on an empty stomach. Got ice cream, once you're done with that . . . Hey, 'Tall in the Saddle' is on tonight. You ever see that one?"
Frank couldn't make out the answer; it was too muffled, but he suspected it was a 'yes'. It most likely wouldn't matter, though; the kid'd be back asleep before the first commercial break, maybe even sooner.
And, he decided, it probably was a good thing for Mark to have someone fuss over him once in a while. Even if Milt does think he's a holy terror and a pain in the butt some of the time.
He stepped out the door, smiled again to himself, and closed it quietly behind him.